Bruce Miroff makes one of my favorite arguments about the presidency in political science literature in "The Presidential Spectacle" (only available in print, unfortunately). In that piece he described the fundamental dilemma of the modern presidency as its dual nature; the institution requires substance but the public demands style. He uses the great analogy of boxing and pro wrestling. Doing one's job as president is like boxing, a contest of strength, strategy, and will. Passing legislation or making military decisions, for example, are actions with uncertain outcomes. Whether they succeed or fail depends on how good he is. Winning public support, on the other hand, is pro wrestling – it's all about style, gestures, and ridiculously simple morality plays with a clearly identifiable villain and a predetermined outcome. Who wins or loses does not depend on skill. It's about mugging for the camera and making the right gestures.
The invasion of Grenada is the classic example of such "presidential spectacle." We are the Good Guys; the godless Commie Menace is the Bad Guy. Cue the footage of American military might kicking ass and getting home in time for supper. Good guys win, bad guys lose…an outcome that is not only identical to every WWF storyline but one that was never in doubt. The first Gulf War, the War on Drugs, the invasion of Panama, and so on would all be good examples as well. Presidents need this type of song-and-dance routine to reinforce what Americans believe about themselves, just as the wrestling crowd is expected to see itself in the (white, mulleted, profane, "All-American" hillbilly) Good Guy and revel in his trouncing of the (black, Mexican, Muslim, or effeminate) Bad Guy.
It was interesting to see how the right would react to Obama caving in on Afghanistan and agreeing to send 30,000 troops (instead of the 40,000 they asked for – ooh, take that!). You knew they needed to find something to bitch about even though the right got what it wanted…open-ended and escalating commitment. For a while it appeared that the best they could do was whining about "dithering" and taking too long to make the decision. That is a lame complaint, albeit not without merit. The appearance of indecisiveness is always punished in opinion polls. Fortunately Krauthammer came along and said what I knew they were all thinking; it was a simple matter of waiting for someone to say it.
We know that the kind of spectacles I described earlier are popular – an American president striding around in a flight suit and declaring to one and all that America just kicked the Bad Guy's ass. We also have quite a problem with blurring the line between entertainment and war. There is an unreasonably large number of Americans who love war. They get off on it. They watch The Military Channel eight hours per day and believe the appropriate response to everything is nuke those motherfuckers (or at least carpet-bomb them). It is entertainment for them, and it bolsters their lousy self-image and latent self-loathing to picture America as some sort of Charles Bronson / Rambo figure strutting around beating nations who don't Do As We Say with his enormous penis.
That's really what Krauthammer is getting at, what he felt was the fundamental problem with Obama's speech: the President was so dispassionate. Where was the sophomoric bravado, the manly chest-pounding, the cockiness, that America Fuck Yeah swagger that all the doughy, impotent Bush voters need in order to get off? Why didn't Obama look excited about war? Why didn't he don a flight suit and declare "We're comin' to kick your ass"? Why didn't he jump on the podium, stare straight into the camera, and challenge Hacksaw Jim Duggan and the Iron Sheik to a cage match at this year's Summer Slam?
It's sad enough that they derive so much pleasure from watching gun camera footage and endless cable TV shows about tanks and bombers blowing shit up (not to mention the endless gun pornography). But to watch the President substantially escalate our commitment to a quagmire – to basically throw 30,000 more people into the meat grinder for no apparent purpose – and then whine about how he didn't look excited enough about it is…well, it's sick. I lack a better or less controversial word for it. Whether they need the image of America-as-Rambo to compensate for their own shortcomings or they simply get a big woody every time they think of war, this portion of the electorate wants Stone Cold Steve Austin as President. Rather than demanding to see more war swagger from Obama they should demand to see a psychiatrist.